Challenge accepted!

Three architects in City West are shaping our world. Their designs are totally different, but the words they use are quite similar: they talk about the essentials, about innovation and about terrible styrofoam boxes

Jürgen Mayer H. - Metropol Parasol, Sevilla Photo: Nikkol Rot für Holcim

Three architects. Three locations in City West. Three lives. Quickly click your way through the websites of the offices of Oliver Collignon, Jürgen Mayer H. and Arup, where Rudi Scheuermann works, and you’ll come to the conclusion: „totally different“. Take a closer look and you’ll not only detect links – you’ll sense a similarity of spirit in the offices of these architects. Where others would have agreed on a compromise long ago, these three have carried on, searching for new solutions. All three muster the creative energy to be innovative. And they do this together.

In this way, buildings such as the City Light House on the corner of Kantstrasse and Joachimstaler Strasse are created, this particular one designed by Oliver Collignon and home to Arup – and to Rudi Scheuermann. He is Head of the Berlin branch of this international engineering company, and is responsible for facade planning worldwide. He can open the window without letting in the -20°C cold air or being disturbed by the noise of the traffic. Collignon has set up an ecological demo project that aims to optimise how thermal conditions are dealt with. And at night, when the building radiates its inner logic, and architecture and LED light strips create a symbiosis, it communicates to passers-by the philosophy of its architect: reduction. „I’ve always looked very hard for the essence of things,“ Oliver Collignon tells us. What he means becomes clear when he talks about the „space problem“ exercise with his teacher Arthur Takeuchi. „A mixture of Mies van der Rohe and Zen Master,“ Collignon studied under him in Chicago. The teacher observed his pupil’s hall design in silence for five minutes, almost meditatively allowing the rooms to have their effect on him. Then his reaction, and the suggestion of shifting one wall a little to the right. „So I did this, and presto! – suddenly the room was perfect. This was a kind of epiphany, and I carry it deep inside me to this day,“ says Oliver Collignon. Today, he and his team design hotels and office and residential buildings in Berlin, as well as underground stations and sports pavilions in China, and they plan cities in Romania. No matter what he’s doing, he always has reduction in mind. „A sustainable building limits itself to the essentials and makes a quality of them,“ says the architect, who has a very wide definition of sustainability. Along with the ecological aspect, Collignon also sees a humanistic one. He wants to create a living space that feels good, inspires and frees from constraints, while also encouraging communication so that people can exchange ideas and realise their cultural potential: „When I build Styrofoam boxes with little window openings so that the building consumes as little energy as possible, it is not necessarily sustainable for me if the people inside become depressed,“ Collignon explains.

His concept seems to be bearing fruit. Creativity has found a home in the City Light House. Here Rudi Scheuermann and his colleagues design other people’s living spaces. Their approach sounds similar: „We want to leave behind a better world than the one we found.“ This could just be a stock phrase, as appears in the high-gloss brochures of many Corporate Social Responsibility departments, but after talking to Rudi Scheuermann for a while, you realise that Arup really means it. The office’s location at the public transport hub of Zoo Station is no accident either. It means that employees can come to work by bus or train. In its drafts and designs, the global Arup family also tries to use the available resources sustainably and sensibly. Rudi Scheuermann’s principle for meeting challenges sounds simple. There are only two kinds of solution – good and bad: „The skill is in being able to differentiate the good solution from the bad one – and in turning the good solution into an appealing one,“ says the facade planner and partition design specialist. To illustrate this, he sketches the „Haus vom Nikolaus“ on the slip of paper before him. „You can build the house based on this same design very well or very badly. With good materials, and attention to detail – or not.“

To understand that a simple plan using few materials can make an impression, you only have to look at the proposal for the lighting on the Kantstrasse railway bridge, just a few minutes from the City Light House. „Analysis revealed that there is always a lot of light there already due to the traffic – many reflecting blobs of colour radiating upwards.“ Therefore, working together with Prof. Hans Peter Kuhn from the Berlin University of the Arts, Arup made use of the varying quality of the light: alternating warm white with cold white. A simple and budget-friendly idea.

In the world of architecture, it’s well known that Arup’s designers, lighting designers, engineers, consultants and technical specialists look for precisely this solution: the good one. Norman Foster and David Chipperfield know this just as well as Oliver Collignon and Jürgen Mayer H., having both worked together with Arup. „It’s give and take, for and against, a weighing up,“ says Rudi Scheuermann about the collaboration with other architects. „It’s a joint process which can sometimes yield a very, very good solution - like in Seville.“

There, in the old city, a huge mushroom-like structure made of wood reaches for the sky: Metropol Parasol, which Jürgen Mayer H. created with the engineers from the Berlin and Madrid branches of Arup. Arup is active in 40 offices and over 100 countries, which is enormously helpful when local colleagues can support a project on site.

In Seville, the location was anything but easy and the requirements of the competition were huge: Roman foundations had to remain accessible while space was created for cars and the market. The plan was to build with steel, but this proved too heavy. Calculations were performed in Berlin. Designs were created and discarded, and finally wood and adhesive were chosen, a system known as bonding technology. „It’s important to follow technological developments. That’s the only way you can work to the limit and push boundaries,“ says Jürgen Mayer H. In spite of the initially critical Spaniards, who saw the project as elitist self-fulfilment on the part of their mayor, this innovation was made reality step-by-step – and the biggest wooden structure in the world was created.

When Jürgen Mayer H. is teaching students, he gets them to think about „the power of beige“, for example. What characterises this colour? What role does it play in architecture? In this way, the architect aims to sharpen the vision of the next generation. He wants them to develop a stance on a topic, on a question relating to society.

He does this himself. Since the 1990s, Mayer H. has worked on a topic that is currently to be found in every area of media, government and parliament: data protection. In 1994, he noticed something that most people are perhaps only unconsciously aware of when they receive a new TAN block from their bank: the data protection pattern. A chaotic mass of numbers and letters meant to protect sensitive data from prying eyes. „The letters have a function but no content,“ Mayer H. explains. „It’s the same with architecture: a space is at once neutral and extremely specific. However, the content results from the people who occupy it.“

The same goes for Metropol Parasol in Seville, through which gay parades and Catholic processions now pass. „Incidentally, the place is defined by the object here, and not by the frame or facades,“ says Mayer H., making the connection back to Berlin. This is as true for the parasols as it is for the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which is his favourite place in Berlin, right next to Collignon’s City Light House, under Scheuermann’s nose.

Susanne Hörr
Kluge Köpfe 2013